How the NY Times Built Its Op-Docs Series Into an Awards Pipeline for Nonfiction Films

Ten years ago, the New York Times embarked on an experiment to incorporate short documentary films into its opinion section and quickly established itself as an alternative to HBO Documentary Films, then the most prominent distributor of short documentaries, growing along with the market for these short nonfiction films in its first decade.

Errol Morris, Jessica Yu and Alex Gibney made shorts for “New York Times: Op-Docs” its inaugural year and since that time its roster has expanded to include Garrett Bradley and Laura Poitras, who expanded their respective op-docs into features that garnered favor with Oscar voters: Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary “CitizenFour” was born out of “The Program” (2012), while Bradley’s Oscar nominated “Time” grew out of her 2016 op-doc short titled “Alone.” Four op-docs shorts have received Oscar nominations, including “Walk Run Cha-Cha” and “A Concerto Is a Conversation” the past two consecutive years, and the program’s docs have also received Emmy and Peabody recognition. Most recently Ben Proudfoot’s “The Queen of Basketball” was awarded best short documentary at the sixth annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards.

Its library includes 370 films that were either commissioned or acquired at various stages of production. “New York Times: Op-Docs” partnered with the filmmakers behind the Sundance Film Festival award-winning short “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma” to release the short in September, for example.

Before launching the program in late 2011, however, New York Times editors grappled with the best way to get it off the ground. The goal was to increase voices in the opinion section while maintaining the news organization’s rigor.

“Before I started, there was a question: ‘Should op-ed writers be filmed on camera’?” recalls Jason Spingarn-Koff, former commissioning editor for opinion video at the New York Times, who launched and oversaw the program from 2011 to 2015. Rather than having them read their op-eds, he had another suggestion.

“What I was putting forward instead, and what I believed, is that the filmmakers could use their medium, their visual language and their creativity to contribute very impactful work that could be as exciting and as impactful, as a written op-ed, but these would be films,” says Spingarn-Koff, now director of original documentary programming at Netflix.

But he knew convincing established filmmakers like Morris, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Stanley Nelson, Lucy Walker and Roger Ross Williams to make an op-doc would be challenging. Prior to the program’s launch in late 2011, HBO’s documentary arm was a haven for filmmakers seeking to move from shorts to feature films that could compete for an Academy Award.

“There was a big question: Why should esteemed filmmakers do this? What’s the value to them?” he recalls. “We didn’t have that much money, so there was an argument that if they could sometimes adapt footage that they had already been working on for another project, they could do a unique film for the New York Times, get a huge audience, and that would help advance what they were doing. It took time to build up that trust in the community.”

Penny Lane’s and Brian L. Frye’s “The Silent Majority” was the first op-doc offering. Categorized as an experimental documentary, the four-minute film consists of archival footage filmed by President Richard M. Nixon’s aides during his campaign to win an elusive majority. Errol Morris’ six-minute “The Umbrella Man,” about a man that appears in the Zapruder film during the assassination of president John F Kennedy, was the next film in the series.

“From the beginning we were trying to show this range of great formal experimentation while also having things that feel appropriate to the New York Times and would also have journalistic integrity,” says Spingarn-Koff.

Op-doc filmmakers are not members of the New York Times staff, but their shorts, which run under its opinion, not news, banner, are vetted just like a printed article.

As the former senior producer of op-docs, Lindsay Crouse was in charge of fact checking a wide array of these offerings. She recalls that there was “a lot of pressure on us to ensure that every single film that we published was held to the same journalistic rigor as any other piece that the Times would publish. So for a lot of my time at op-docs I was in charge of vetting each film for transparency, vetting the identities of different people, going through each scene,” explains Crouse, who now serves as a senior editor at the Times’ opinion section.

“And every documentary filmmaker has a different process. So that’s something that we took really seriously — bringing all of these different processes up to the standards of the Times.”

Being part of the Times’ opinion section allowed for “wide creative latitude and flexibility,” she points out.

“I took that really seriously in terms of really enabling filmmakers, no matter who they were or what their approach was, to be as creative and flexible with the medium as possible,” she says. “What was most important as we went through every scene, was to just ask them, ‘Is this real?’ ‘Is this reenacted?’ and to be as transparent with our audience as possible so that no one was misinterpreting anything. With that came tremendous freedom and a lot of really exciting opportunities.”

The first op-doc to incorporate actors into a film was Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s “Notes on Blindness.” The 12-minute short about the deteriorating vision of writer and theologian John Hull was accepted in the Sundance Film Festival in 2014.

“What it really comes down to for the op-docs team when you’re taking any creative leaps is the contract with the audience,” says Kathleen Lingo, who worked on the series from 2013-2018, running it for three years following Spingarn-Koff’s 2015 departure. “That was something that the editors who we worked with always insisted on — people should not feel tricked. So in the beginning of ‘Notes on Blindness,’ there’s a card that says actors are used. With that clarity with the audience, you can then take huge creative leaps and never lose their trust. And I think that is a big difference that remains between op-docs and other documentaries where there’s creative decisions that the filmmakers are making.”

If you ask other documentary filmmakers about creative decisions they’ve made, “they’ll tell you, but there’s nothing within the film that reveals it,” observes Lingo, who now serves as the editorial director for film and TV at the Times.

The nonfiction series has also served as a conduit for filmmakers to explore bigger stories. While making a 13-minute short titled “Alone,” which won the 2017 Sundance Film Festival short form jury award in nonfiction, Bradley met Sibil Fox Richardson (a.k.a. Fox Rich), who spent two decades fighting for her husband’s release from prison. She would become the subject of Bradley’s feature docu “Time,” which was nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year.

Poitras, meanwhile, came into to contact with Edward Snowden after he saw her op-doc entitled “The Program,” and that led to her Oscar-winning documentary “CitizenFour.”

“Laura was interviewing a National Security Agency whistleblower, and we did a piece about this guy putting forward this incredible, shocking revelation about a domestic spying program,” says Spingarn-Koff. “That film was seen by a guy named Edward Snowden, and he reached out to Laura and began this relationship which changed the world and led to ‘CitizenFour.’ That showed the filmmaking community as well as the world that op-docs could have a lot of impact.”

Lance Oppenheim did the reverse: He turned left over footage from his “Some Kind of Heaven” feature doc about a retirement village in Florida into “The Paradise Next Door,” an eight-minute short that debuted earlier this year.

Bronwen Parker-Rhodes, meanwhile, has directed three op-docs shorts since 2019: “After Birth,” “Menopause Stories” and “Just Girls,” the later set to release Dec. 7. All three films explore the pivotal moments in a woman’s life where her relationship with her body changes. While Parker-Rhodes did not receive large checks to make each doc, the reach each short had proved to be a different form of payment.

“The response that I got from both ‘After Birth’ and ‘Menopause Stories’ was crazy,” says Parker-Rhodes. “So many women emailed me out of the blue after ‘Menopause Stories.’ That was the most amazing thing about that film. So many women going through early menopause, which one of the subjects in the film is going through, were thanking me and telling me that they finally felt seen. That was the most rewarding thing about making that film.”

The response to op-doc shorts has always been a key component of the series. “Because it was an extension of op-eds, we needed to have films that were not just interesting, but films that would actually have dialogue around them,” Spingarn-Koff says.

The same approach applies today, but there’s even more focus on broadening the network of filmmakers internationally, according to current head of op-docs, Christine Kecher, who joined the Times in January 2021.

“At the moment we’re really focusing on expanding our network of filmmakers geographically,” says Kecher. “Both regionally in the U.S. and seeing what international markets and festivals we’ve maybe never been to before. Op-docs has a really strong history in publishing international films and it’s a luxury in the industry to be able to do that.”

The short films are posted on the New York Times’ homepage and YouTube channel. The initiative has also spurred the entertainment industry to take short docus seriously.

“When we started op-docs, there was very little of a market for doc shorts,” says Spingarn-Koff, “So when the New York Times came on the scene with op-docs it was very foreign. But today you have Netflix, the New York Times, the New Yorker, MTV Documentary Films, A&E, the Guardian, ESPN and Field of Vision all making short documentaries.

“It has become a professionalized competitive field, which is really exciting,” he adds. “There’s true money behind them. There are actual fees that people can earn to make shorts. It’s a completely transformed landscape.”

(Top, clockwise from left: Garrett Bradley’s “Alone,” Bronwen Parker-Rhodes’ “Menopause Stories,” Topaz Jones and Rubberband’s “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma,” and Ben Proudfoot’s “The Queen of Basketball.”) 

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